Politics & Government

Durham had 1,700 untested rape kits. Now it’s clearing them faster than almost any city.

Some rape survivors in Durham may have a better chance at finding closure, since the city has recently sent hundreds of samples of untested DNA evidence in for analysis.

There has been a statewide push to get rid of the backlog of untested rape evidence kits. Attorney General Josh Stein said at a news conference Thursday that Durham is leading the charge to get evidence off of police shelves and into crime labs.

“Durham is now the No. 2 city in the state of North Carolina in terms of moving kits off of the shelves, where they do us no good, and into the evidence analysis process, where we can eventually solve crimes,” Stein said.

Newly tested kits have solved several cold cases in the last year. Last month, Johnston County authorities used a previously untested rape kit to make an arrest in an unsolved murder from 1972. And in Warren County, a jury convicted a man in the rape of an 80-year-old woman in 2007, who was only recently identified when her rape kit was finally tested.

Charlene Reiss, who works with sexual assault and human trafficking victims at the Durham Crisis Response Center, said the police owe it to victims to do everything they can to solve the cases — especially in a delicate situation like a sexual assault.

“The examination and evidence collection take many hours,” she said. “It is uncomfortable, and it is invasive. It takes courage to submit one’s body to that process and to tell the story of one’s assault to a stranger.”

The police in Asheville have sent in the most untested kits, Stein said, with Durham and Winston-Salem close behind. But the work isn’t done. Last year a statewide inventory found about 15,000 untested kits. It’s unclear how many there are now, but Stein said no other state had as large of a backlog.

“This is more than any other state in the nation,” Stein said. “It’s an unfortunate designation we cannot accept.”

Reiss agreed.

“Sexual assault survivors agree to the evidence collection expecting their kits to be tested,” she said. “As a system we need to respect and honor the courage of those survivors by testing all of their kits and keeping them informed at all stages of the process.”

Satana Deberry, Durham County’s newly elected district attorney, said she considers rape the most violent type of crime other than murder. She promised to “make sure the sexual assault victims in Durham County are treated with compassion and their cases are solved as quickly as possible.”

But even in Durham, which has sent in more untested rape kits than nearly everywhere else in the state, the city still has yet to clear even half of its backlog. Stein said the city previously had 1,700 untested kits, and since last October police have sent in 357 for testing. That means about 80 percent of the city’s untested rape kits will remain untested, for at least the near future.

Money is one factor in the statewide backlog. So are different policies in different police departments, Stein said, with no statewide standard on what types of cases should have the evidence tested.

The State Crime Lab, which Stein’s office oversees, recently received about $3 million in grants to help cut down on the backlog. But Stein said he needs $6 million more and has asked the state legislature for help.

He said Thursday that the House of Representatives signed off on that idea by putting the money in its version of the new state budget. The Senate’s budget proposal hasn’t yet been released, but Stein said he’s hopeful.

Lawmakers previously spent $16 million building a new satellite office for the State Crime Lab in Western North Carolina, which opened in 2017. Both Stein and his predecessor, now-Gov. Roy Cooper, had pushed for the new lab which they said will help police working on rape, narcotics and other criminal investigations in the western part of the state.

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